It's amazing what a hot shower and a change of underwear can do for one's attitude.
The Bamboo Garden Hotel is a great deal for around $US 70 a night. It's a first rate establishment, built around a courtyard that once housed the Empress' eunuchs. There are quiet pools to sit by for reflection, a restaurant, tea room and bar, and (most importantly) hot water in the showers! The room is fantastic, including free HBO and a James Bond-like control panel to control and lights that folds up into the night stand to disguise itself as a drawer when not being used.
The first day I went to see the Imperial Palace (otherwise known as the Forbidden City to you and me). It's an amazing place. Entry is 40 RMB (around $US 5). I spent 2 1/2 hours wandering through the grounds at a quick pace, barely glancing at any of the displays and still didn't get to see everything. A focused person with a map of the grounds and an interest in reading everything could take days to see the whole thing. And even then, there's probably stuff that you would miss.
I entered one busy courtyard and looked around. On my way out, I noticed a small, dark alley that no one was going down. I wandered down the alley and came out into an amazing courtyard with fantastic views of the nearby rooftop. Other than the Imperial Palace worker, I had the place to myself. Marvelous.
Leaving the Forbidden City I met two Chinese students who were studying English, Shadow and Coco. They asked if they could talk with me to practice their English. I agreed. Shadow and Coco studied just outside of Beijing, and had a day off as their teachers were having a conference. Coco had never seen the Forbidden City, so they had come into the city to see it.
We went to Tinanmen square, all the while chatting in English about my life and their lives. Shadow suggested checking out old Beijing. We walked through a pharmacy with some really expensive ginseng and checked out the really old buildings.
Coco suggested going to see a tea ceremony, as the tea festival was now on. We went to a tea house that had been in operation for over 200 years. The tea ceremony was performed by a young lady. She poured us different kinds of teas, and explained where they came from and their uses. When she spoke, she almost was singing. As harsh and unwelcoming as the Chinese had sounded last night in the Jining train station, it sounded melodic coming from this cute, button nosed girl as she poured us more tea.
However, no amount of melody could hide the disharmony of getting the 2461 RMB bill (around $330). Coco, Shadow and I were all shocked at the price. I ended up picking up the tab, as I remember what $110 a person would have done to my budget when I was student, and that was back in North America. Imagine the dent in a Chinese student's budget.
Shadow and Coco, by way of thanks, took me out to a restaurant for Beijing duck (also known in North America as Peking Duck), and then we walked more around old Beijing and the Hutong.
The Hutong is what all the narrow and alleys that criss-cross Beijing are called. The streets are narrow, the houses so small that people share washrooms. No cars give the place a peaceful quiet in the otherwise busy Beijing, though. Coco said that the Hutong was disappearing, though. In the two years she had been in Beijing, much of it had been bulldozed and replaced with wide streets and high rises in preparation for the Olympics. I asked her what she thought of the new Beijing that was developing, and she said she didn't like it. It was too noisy.
After spending the whole afternoon together, I parted ways with Coco and Shadow and headed back to my hotel.
Now, here's the thing about that whole story. I wrote it as I was feeling it at the time. What I didn't know, and learnt later, is that it's all a scam. "English students" ask to practice their English, and end up taking you to tea ceremonies or high priced restaurants. It's quite common in Beijing, actually. I had a few doubts when the bill originally came, but after spending another 2 hours with Coco and Shadow, I figured they were on the level. After all, would con-men take their mark out for dinner? The answer, apparently, is yes, they would.
The amazing things about it, though, is that I am not at all mad about it. It was such a pleasant afternoon and it was nice to have some local guides to the city. The scam was so expertly run that I didn't know it was even happening. Really, I was pretty stupid for not asking about the price of the tea ceremony before taking part. And what's $300 to me? Prior to that day in Beijing, I had spent less than $200 in Moscow, Irkutsk and Ulaan Baator. It was a cheap trip up to that point.
So, I am warned for the future, beware of English students and tea ceremonies. Life lesson, I suppose. But no point in getting upset about what is the past.
The next day I had planned to go to the Great Wall. But I didn't want to go on one of the tour buses to the wall. Instead, I wanted to go to an untouristed part of the wall and do some hiking. My guidebook recommended a place, and it was easy to get to, just a couple of local buses and I would be there.
The problem was, once I arrived at the bus station, I couldn't figure out what bus to take. The station was chaos and there were no signs in English. I wander around for about 30 minutes, but can't make heads nor tails of the situation. Finally, I give up.
Now, at this point I could have taken a tour bus to the wall, or even hired a minitaxi to take me. But I didn't. I was so disgusted at myself for not being able to take the local buses that I lost all interest in going to the wall at all. And so, I ended up missing my opportunity to see the Great Wall.
I don't know why I act this way. I am on vacation, and yet I end up pushing myself to be less "touristy" and get off the beaten track. And because of that, I miss out on a fantastic experience like the Great Wall. Why do I feel the need to make every vacation more and more of an endeavor?
After getting out of my funk, I had a good day in Beijing. I wandered around the town, and noted for sure what Coco had meant the day before when she said that they were tearing down the Hutong. High rises were going up everywhere. I saw lots of large lots surrounded by boards announcing new luxury condos and office tours. In one, I could still see people living in the Hutong alleys that were slated for a quick destruction.
The Hutong is basically slums, so I can't complain about them being torn down. People deserve nicer places to live. But I do have to wonder about where the Hutong residences are being displaced to. In place of the Hutong it all seemed to be luxury condo buildings. I doubted they could afford to move from the Hutong into those buildings.
Anyway, I am glad I got the opportunity to see it all before it disappears.
That night, I was wandering back to my hotel after dinner, and came across a large square in the Hutong by my hotel. In the darkened square, women were line dancing to Chinese pop music.
That's the amazing thing about the Chinese. They are completely open. They wander around singing in public and line dance or do tai chi in the park. The spit in public and pick their noses. They use open public toilets without embarrassment. And they stare at what they are interested in. It's not rude, it's just open.
All the staring at me in Jining wasn't malicious in any way, it's just that they were interested in what a white dude was doing sitting in a train station in rural China. I noticed that the Chinese stare at all sorts of stuff - people getting tickets, couples arguing, people haggling over goods. In Canada, were interested in all these things, but we hide our interest and instead take furtive glances and strain to overhear. In China, they just walk up and see what is going on.
Any discomfort with this is my problem, not theirs. I am, after all, the foreigner in Beijing. I'm the stranger, but the land is only strange to me. To the Chinese, it's life.